For a while, officials were cool on holding a ballot question about Boston hosting the Olympics.
Although Olympic opponents had floated the idea as early as last fall, bidding group Boston 2024 said it was opposed to the idea. Boston Mayor Marty Walsh said he was too.
And in last year’s application for cities seeking the U.S. bid, the United States Olympic Committee also seemed concerned about the idea, asking applicants: “Could you be forced into a referendum by opponents of the bid?’’
Then came a series of poor polling results, and Olympic proponents seemed willing to give a ballot question a whirl. Boston 2024 changed course in March when then-Chairman John Fish said the group would support a November 2016 ballot question on whether Boston should bid for the games.
The USOC was also on board, Fish said. And in a late June press conference confirming the USOC’s support for the Boston bid, USOC Chairman Larry Probst even suggested that the national committee sees a referendum as part of any U.S. bidding effort.
“I can assure you that if we had anointed San Francisco or Los Angeles [which also sought the U.S. nomination], there would have been some sort of voter referendum or something that would take place at the polls,’’ Probst said. “It’s just part of the system in the United States, and we feel pretty positive about that.’’
So everybody—even the USOC, for which a failed referendum in Boston would mean no 2024 Olympic bid at all—seems good with a ballot question.
Massachusetts voters are going to weigh on Boston’s Olympic bid at some point.
It’s just not clear what, exactly, they’ll vote on. Or when. Or how.
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What Boston could look like during, after the Olympics
What does Boston 2024 want to ask voters?
We don’t really know yet. But when Fish (who has since been replaced as Boston 2024’s chairman) announced that Boston 2024 would support an Olympics referendum, he gave every indication that the group sought a straight yes-or-no on whether or not to bid.
The deal, he said, was this: The bid would only go forward if, come the November 2016 referendum, it won support both in Boston and across the state.
There were problems with that idea right away, though.
Fish said in March that Boston 2024 would “collect signatures’’ to support the question, suggesting they would follow the “initiative petition’’ process. In that case, the text of the question is presented to the attorney general, and then signatures are collected to put it to voters.
That kind of question needs to either propose or repeal a law. A yes/no vote on whether Boston 2024 should bid on the Olympics doesn’t do that.
Still, Boston 2024 said it could find a way to make a question work by consulting “with experts to craft a question that passes legal and constitutional muster.’’
The deadline to turn a question in to the attorney general’s office—where that determination about constitutional muster is made—is August 5. If Boston 2024 plans to follow this path for getting a question to voters, it will need to do so by then.
Late last month, The Boston Globe reported “Boston 2024 officials indicated they were not yet working in earnest on the referendum,’’ and that the group may be reluctant to form the kind of “political apparatus’’ sponsoring its own question would require.
What else could happen?
Crafting a question, bringing it to the attorney general, and collecting signatures is not the only option for getting a question in front of voters.
The legislature could put a simple yes/no vote on the ballot—one that doesn’t move to create or repeal a law. Such a question would not be binding, but Boston 2024 has held that it wouldn’t go forward without both city and state support.
It remains to be seen which route Boston 2024 will take to get a question on the ballot. Boston 2024 COO Erin Murphy said in a statement: “We are committed to ensuring that a clear, transparent ballot question is put before the voters to consider and believe our bid will be stronger with a majority of citizens of Massachusetts and Boston in support.’’
Boston 2024 told the Globe that it is operating under the assumption a vote will come in November 2016. However, there have been some rumblings that a question could be put to voters sooner. An earlier date would almost certainly mean fewer voters, because November is a presidential election.
Are there any other Olympic-related questions out there?
Evan Falchuk, a third-party candidate for governor last year, is pushing a ballot question of his own for next November.
His question would not directly ask yes or no about the Olympics. Instead, it would ask whether the state should spend any public money on the games—with the exception of some infrastructure costs. Polls have shown taxpayer protection to be the principle concern for voters about the Olympic bid.
Falchuk said he will submit the text of his question to the attorney general’s office by the August 5 deadline. He has partnered with another group that won a ballot question in 2014 to stop automatic gas tax increases. That group will help him gather the tens of thousands of signatures needed to get the question in front of voters.
How does Boston 2024 feel about Falchuk’s question?
Boston 2024 CEO Rich Davey has said he would “absolutely’’ vote in support of Falchuk’s question. (Boston 2024 has repeatedly said that it would not need public funds for venue construction or games operations.)
The Globe also reported Boston 2024 “is looking at the best way to guarantee a public vote on the Olympics, whether it be through former gubernatorial candidate Evan Falchuk’s ballot question’’ or going another avenue.
Falchuk’s question would bar state funds from the Olympics. It wouldn’t, however, directly ask whether or not Massachusetts residents want to host the Olympics. When it announced its support for a referendum, Boston 2024 said its goal was to get to a yes-or-no—and if “no’’ won, it wouldn’t bid.
Falchuk’s question doesn’t ask that. And considering Davey’s stated support for Falchuk’s question, it seems unlikely the group would opt not to bid if Falchuk’s question passed.
In other words, Falchuk’s question, at least in its current form, is not a substitute for achieving Boston 2024’s pledge of asking voters to say yes or no to hosting.
Massachusetts voters may wind up seeing two questions about the Olympics on next fall’s ballots: one asking voters to weigh Falchuk’s question and one asking whether or not to bid. But, again, we still don’t know if or how that straight yes-or-no vote will materialize.
City Councilor Josh Zakim has proposed four non-binding questions in Massachusetts for this fall’s city elections.
They would ask whether Boston should host the Olympics, whether any public money should go toward doing so, whether the city should guarantee to cover any budgetary shortfalls should it host, and whether the city should use eminent domain powers as part of the hosting process (something Walsh says he would not do).
It still remains to be determined whether the questions will go to city voters.